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Linguistics: The write stuff

Steven Pinker's provocative treatise on language use and abuse would benefit from more data, finds Paul Raeburn.

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

Allen Lane: 2014. 9780670025855 | ISBN: 978-0-6700-2585-5

No conversation about the science of language can get very far without a mention of Steven Pinker, the Harvard University cognitive scientist who has not yet made linguistics as popular as football — but is working on it. In The Sense of Style, he wants to give us the cognitive science, linguistics and psychology behind classic debates over proper English, from passive voice to split infinitives.

Plenty of others have given us stuffy decrees intended to end the interminable wrangling, but Pinker is different. He is unhappy with the classic style manuals — including revered texts such as Strunk & White (William Strunk and E. B. White's The Elements of Style) or Fowler's Modern English Usage. We need a new guide “infused by the spirit of scientific skepticism”, he writes, using grammar and research on “the mental dynamics of reading” to replace edicts with evidence. Pinker gave us the science in The Language Instinct (William Morrow, 1994); in The Sense of Style he sets out to offer its practical application.

He covers much of the same ground as the classic guides, including frequently misused words (“fulsome” and “noisome”) and the serial comma. His problem with Strunk & White, however, is that the authors lack tools for analysing language, and so end up “vainly appealing to the writer's 'ear'”. That's on page two. By page three, he is challenging the manual's dismissal of the passive voice. Linguistic research, he later writes, has shown that the passive actually “allows the writer to direct the reader's gaze, like a cinematographer choosing the best camera angle”. What research, exactly? Pinker does not tell us. His views are informed by psycholinguistics; that is his day job. But he promises us science, so I expected to see data. However, in this instance, and in many others, the data are not there.

Similarly, Pinker's view on infinitives is to split them “if you need to”, a conclusion backed by dictionaries and style manuals — not research. And when he quotes with admiration the opening line of Richard Dawkins' Unweaving the Rainbow (Houghton Mifflin, 1998) — “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones” — he offers a detailed explanation of why it works that is, again, short on science.

Pinker is a good writer and a deeply humanistic one, and there are many bright moments here. His lists explaining right and wrong usage with a range of examples (enervate means to sap, not energize) are a useful desk reference. Among numerous good tips is one on, as Pinker has it, “the compulsion to name things with different words when they are mentioned multiple times”. “Herons are herons,” he writes, not “long-legged waders, azure airborne aviators, or sapphire sentinels of the sky”.

At times, however, Pinker's own writing verges on the incomprehensible. Consider his critique of this sentence: “Toni Morrison's genius enables her to create novels that arise from and express the injustices African Americans have endured.” Some might say 'her' is an error, because an adjective ('Toni Morrison's') cannot be the antecedent of a pronoun. But Pinker explains it this way: “Toni Morrison's is not an adjective, like red or beautiful; it's a noun phrase in genitive case. (How do we know? Because you can't use genitives in clear adjectival contexts like That child seems Lisa's or Hand me the red and John's sweater.)” After reading that several times, I think I know what he means. But it is tough to get through.

Pinker also reveals himself at the outset to be not a prescriptivist, like Strunk and White, but a descriptivist, who sees language as “a wiki that pools the contributions of millions of writers and speakers”.

I agree: we make the language. But if that is the case, science probably can't do any better than Strunk & White at dictating style. The only legitimate data come from the people. So maybe it is too soon to jettison the classic style manuals: I suspect much of Pinker's sense of style comes less from his science than from his own wonderful writer's ear.

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Correspondence to Paul Raeburn.

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Raeburn, P. Linguistics: The write stuff. Nature 513, 309–310 (2014).

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